Storm Clouds and Obligation

I feel like the majority of my posts on this blog start with apologies for not posting more on this blog. So once again, apologies for delay. And a special apology to my seeming editor Max Hotkowski, who has been scathing in his denouncement of my post punctuality.

In my own defense, I have written two potential posts in the elapsed time. But in both cases I was ultimately displeased. The first because I couldn’t seem to make my point, and the second because my point was ghastly. I think the poor writing of those posts is exemplary of my general malaise the past month or so. There are many likely causes; a diminishing social circle, hurricane season making for more stormy days inside, and a sense of drudgery as data collection grinds on. That is not to say we are not making progress. At the present time we have collected 55 usable trials out of our target of 75. So there is certainly good news there. But it is difficult to overstate the frustrating nature of this type of experiment. I did the math and worked out that on a perfect day, which is one where we get two trials, for every minute I spend collecting data; I spend almost three hours trying to collect data. And we have had weeks were we collect four trials over six days. Hopefully that makes you feel better about your own vocational productivity.

This week was stormier than most, though in this case it was both metaphorical and literal. My assistant has taken ill with Dengue Fever. She has seen a doctor and has been assured a swift recovery provided she remains bed ridden. So she will be laid up for the remainder of the week, leaving me to sit on my hands.

Instead of hand sitting, I chose to find the silver lining of this particular storm cloud. I went to the island with camera in hand. Those with a keen analytical eye will note that when I was in South Africa I had glorious photos in nearly every post. These same people will similarly note that such photos have been lacking lately. This is because the current experiment weighs me down with an irritating amount of equipment. An amount I am unwilling to augment with my camera. As a result I have not taken many/any photos of the islands many happenings. But today I rectified that evil. I spent the whole morning strolling the island and either photographing or video taping the daily events of Monkey Island.

Today brought to mind a favorite quote of mine from Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, “work consists of that which you are obliged to do, play consists of that which you are unobliged to do.” I find that I quite agree with him. I spend forty hours a week walking, stalking, and talking with monkeys (though luckily they haven’t started talking back). But because I am obliged to do those things for my project they become work. Today, free from obligation it became play. I lipsmacked with a few juveniles (that sounds a lot creepier than it is… lip smacking is an affiliative placating gesture used by the monkeys), watched a couple of fights, and laughed as a monkey ran past me up on two legs with his mouth and arms full of chow. I enjoyed a day of simply sitting and watching. No agenda, no to do list. Just five hours watching monkeys and dwelling on how wonderful it to have the privilege .

A result of my day was a series of photos that capture some of the more mundane yet delightful elements of monkey life. My furry friends have an invariable schedule they follow. One that most who hear it are envious of. Their average day goes like this: They wake up, eat for 3 hours, take a nap, groom for a few hours, forage, and then go to sleep.

See you’re envious. Don’t worry, I am too.

So lets walk through it:

They Eat 
They Nap (or try to)
They Groom
They Forage
They Sleep

Sometimes I envy the life of a monkey. But then I think that the life of a human envying the life of a monkey has vastly more intrigue.

Storm Clouds and Obligation

On Baby Season and New Beginnings

I feel that I have been very fortunate in my life thus far. I have been fortunate enough to have a good home, good friends, and a good family. But forget all of that for now, because for the second time in my life I get to witness a monkey birthing season.

That’s right folks, it’s Baby Season!!!!!! (Crowd cheers, applause, fanfare, etc.)

DSC_0249There are a few constants in any baby season. First there is the babies, and second is the oohing and ahhhing over the babies. As such, I am besieged daily by the cries of my coworkers as they succumb to violent “cute attacks”, “adorable strokes”, or “awwww seizures” upon seeing the freshly born. I for my part, find the new earthlings to be utterly delightful and in some ways awe inspiring, but it the new mothers and not their fluffy little bundles that have captured my fascination.

For months now I have watched as many of the female macaques in my group balloon to preposterous size. One female by the name of 0I6 grew so round that I introduced her to my research assistant, Emma, as Bowling Ball. It was she that I thought would be the first to pop out a kid. But I was mistaken. Instead the first to give birth this year was a sub-adult female named 9N1. This years infant is her first offspring and if you watch her for any amount of time, that becomes painfully obvious. She is however, not alone in her new inept maternal status.There is also a female named 4C1 who gave birth for the first time this year, and is struggling to come to grips with her new charge.

4C1 and her side saddle infant 

There is one aspect of motherhood in particular that both moms are botching. Baby macaques, like many monkey species, ride on their mothers’ stomachs for most of their first weeks of life. They grip on with their surprisingly strong little hands and sip on refreshing breast milk all day long. This arrangement also frees up mom to move about mostly unencumbered, with all her limbs free. In 9N1’s case she might be a bit too free. There have been multiple occasions on which I have seen her bend down to drink water and unceremoniously dunk her baby’s head beneath the surface, holding it under with her mass until she has satisfied her thirst. On the other hand, 4C1 can’t seem to get her infant to grip her chest. In fact her infant seems quite happy to grip any other part of her body. Often I will see her foraging with her infant hanging off her back, her side, or her leg. On one hilarious occasion I saw 4C1 fleeing from a conflict whilst swatting at her infant who was clamped to her head, face hugger style.

The antics of these mothers pair nicely with the antics of their infants. Both have found themselves in a new world of experiences and both are exploring their new roles with trepidation. There is one further parallel to the tale of these new mothers and infants, and I have alluded to it before in this piece and the last: my new experience of having a research assistant.

Emma in the Field

I think that part of my interest in the tribulations of these first time moms is a sense of empathy. I too have accidentally inundated my new charge, and I often struggle to know just where to put her. Like 9N1 and 4C1 I am adept at working on my own and have been doing so for many years. I know how to motivate myself, how I best learn, and what my limits are. Fieldwork is something I am familiar with and love. But now like the monkeys I have to nurture someone new; someone without the knowledge and experience I have. Someone who doesn’t know that you should never turn tail and run if a monkey aggresses you, or if you hear leaves rustling above you, don’t look up with your mouth open. In this new role I must walk a balance between friend and taskmaster: rebuking without rudeness, and familiarizing without fraternizing. I must divulge badly needed knowledge in a form most tasteful to

an unknown palate, while waiting patiently on developing skills on which my future depends.


I’ll be keeping an eye on the new moms in the coming weeks, to see if they are fairing any better with their charges. Thus far it’s going pretty well. No one has died, infant or assistant. And they are becoming more capable every day, despite the blunders of their teachers. Fingers crossed we all make it to October in one piece.

On Baby Season and New Beginnings

So Hi…


I have been absent from this webspace for a little over a month now, and there is a reason for that. A good reason. Possibly the best reason there is. And that reason is Progress.


On May 10th my Advisor, the immensely talented Lauren Brent, came to Puerto Rico for two weeks with the express goal of helping to transition the project from the call collection phase to the playback running phase.

At this stage it may be useful to explain what a playback experiment is, and why I need help transitioning to running such an experiment.

A playback experiment in its simplest form is using a speaker to play a recording of an animal’s call to another animal, while simultaneously recording the response of the animal hearing the call. By controlling who hears what call in what context, playback experiments can tell us a lot about how animals give and receive information about the world around them. It can be used to determine if a species can discriminate between the calls of individual group members, or to identify which alarm call warns of which predator. In my case a playback experiment can help us to understand what affects one monkey’s willingness to help another in a conflict.

However, playbacks, for all their usefulness, are exceedingly difficult experiments to run. They are difficult for many reasons, but there is one in particular that I have been grappling with for the past few weeks: I have no control over what the monkeys do. This experiment requires a specific series of events to occur with a specific set of individuals within a limited time window. It is the experimental equivalent of crossing a flooded river by waiting for logs to be washed by in such a way that it makes a bridge that you can cross.

For those of you who know me well, it should be painfully obvious why running an experiment in which I have no control, is especially challenging.

18447081_10155227368099804_2363375268788735262_nThe scream collecting that I undertook for the last 5 months was only the first, and in many ways the simplest of the steps I must take to successfully complete this project. In the past month I have take steps two through four. First designing an exhaustive protocol for running the experiment. Then conducting pilot studies to refine said protocol, and finally training my new research assistant Emma (yes dear readers, I have a research assistant) in using the protocol’s final iteration.

There are tales a plenty to tell about the struggles of the last month, not the least of which is my fantastically unsuccessful first attempt at a research leadership role. But I will have plenty of time to elaborate on the successors to those stories in the coming weeks.

Instead I wish to cry exultation to the sky and dance in the glow emitted from my own victory. For this past week we ran our first five experimental trials! To put it in more ultimate terms: I have been in Puerto Rico since January 14th, 5 months, and this past Monday was the first piece of tangible data I have collected towards my masters project. Whooooo!!!

This achievement also marks the beginning of the final stage of my fieldwork. I have run 5 out of the 75 trials required, a whopping 1/15th of the total data I need to collect. Once we hit that 75th trial my time in Puerto Rico will come to an end. So for all of those who yearn to see me back in the north east, I will be including a weekly countdown of trials run along with my now weekly updates about my time here.

I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I am getting pretty excited about it.








So Hi…

The Saga Continues



The picture above is not an abstract masterpiece. It is in fact evidence of an assault on my person. An assault perpetrated by one 8E8.

(Pause to let the horror of the statement sink in)

Yes readers, the villain is still at large, and yes she continues to make my work day one of alertness and trepidation. There were numerous occasions in the past few weeks when I (the innocent party) was wrongfully attacked by this furry little Hitler. Sometimes it was a grunt and a glare, threatening violence. Other times it was the violence itself; charging and slapping my leg, my butt, or my side. The above picture is evidence of the last one. It is her muddy handprint from where she slapped my field shirt. The nerve of some animals!

As further evidence of her wrong doings I have compiled my recordings of her transgressions and organized them into the file below. I could give you a description of what is happening in each recording. But I feel that the recordings alone paint a pretty vivid picture of a 6’ 4” human getting into heated fights with a 40 lb monkey. Enjoy!


The Saga Continues

I Scream you Scream, but I’m only interested in Monkey Screams

I have been trying to think of a good way to introduce all of you to the work I am doing down here. There is the slight complication that I can’t openly discuss the actual research questions and hypothesis. This is because we are trying to answer a never before asked question and by sharing the question you run the risk, no matter how slim the chance, of someone taking the idea, using a quicker technique to answer it, and beating us to publication. That may seem paranoid and suspicious, but consider the possibility that you spend 9 months working 50 hours a week collecting data, and then 3 months analyzing your data and writing up a paper. Only to be told upon submission that some has already answered that question and that your manuscript is now worthless. That would in my mind be a bad feeling. So instead I will deliver my explanations in discrete chunks that leaves you wondering about the whole.

Many of you who have spoken to me in the past few months have likely heard me say, or read a message to the effect of “It’s been such a long day, I have been processing my screams all afternoon.” Or “ the mating season is ended so there are a lot fewer screams to be had.” It’s possible that this alarmed you. It’s even possible that like my mother you were horrified by my cavalier attitude toward monkeys in peril. Well fear not citizens! For I shall explain myself and my interest in screams more fully, and then you can be more justly horrified.

Firstly I feel I should inform you that my interest in monkey screams is purely professional. I am not a medieval torturer who gains pleasure from the screams of his victims. That is not to say I don’t occasionally exclaim “Ohhhhh that’s a good one” upon hearing a particularly robust noisy scream in the field. But it is professional pleasure I take. Not personal.

You may note that noisy scream is italicized, and that is for good reason. A 1984 paper by Gouzoules et al. determined that there are five types of scream that rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) produce. Each of the five is use in a different context, changing based on the relationship to the attacker and the intensity of the conflict. Noisy screams are the calls produced when the attacker is higher ranking within the matrilineal or patrilineal hierarchy, and when the conflict is physically violent. They are also the most common type of scream, in part because conflicts with lower rankers or family members rarely elicit screams. The below diagram shows spectrograms of each of the five scream types and is taken from (Gouzoules, Gouzoules, & Marler, 1984)

Screen Shot Gouzoules Screams AM

That should also explain my interest in them. Starting in May this year I will begin using the screams in a playback experiment. In this experiment I play a scream from a hidden speaker to a specific individual after a specific set of conditions are met (I know that is infuriatingly vague, but I can expand on it later). The important part to consider is that I want calls that are most likely to elicit a strong reaction. Thus physical conflicts with high rankers are ideal, both because they elicit the most energy dense screams, and because they happen the most often, which increases my chance of collecting them.

“Different types of screams? Energy dense? Will you are talking nonsense.” Is what you may be thinking. Well perhaps an example and an illustration are in order. Below is one of the best screams I have collected, and below it is a spectrogram of the same call.

1L5 Scream pic

Consider this a small taste of my daily world. What you have just listened to is one of my better scream recordings after I have cleaned out the background noise. What you are looking at is a spectrogram, a visual representation of that same scream. The X-axis is time, the Y-axis is frequency, and the color represents the amount of energy present at any given point. With blue being very little, and white being a whole lot. To put it in perspective, here is a spectrograph of me saying, “Here is a spectrogram of me saying, here is a spectrogram.”

Here is a Spectogram.png

I use spectrograms to identify the types of screams I’m looking at (although after 3 months of doing this I can pretty much identify a noisy scream by ear) and to clean out sounds from the environment, or other callers. They are a nifty way of representing vocalizations and I often get excited when I see an especially good looking scream. Professional excitement. Not personal.

Well I hope you enjoyed a peek into my little world, and I hope you have gained an appreciation for a good scream. Tune in next time for an update in the saga of Will vs 8E8!!!





I Scream you Scream, but I’m only interested in Monkey Screams

Sounds You Never Expect to Record


The vast majority of my day is spent walking around an island covered in monkeys, carrying a large fluffy microphone and recording the many sounds all around me. I record bird song, I record the sound of waves crashing on a beach, and I record the sound of the wind and the rain in the palm trees of the island. But perhaps the most majestic sound I have yet to record is this one right here.

That is the sound of a monkey physically threatening me. But it is not just any monkey. Her name is 8E8. And she is my nemesis. The tale of Will and 8E8 goes back a long long long long time, eons really. All the way back to three or four weeks ago. It was then that we had our first altercation.

Now the first thing I should really say is that these monkeys are not violent towards humans, we do not risk our lives going out into the field everyday and that simple safety precautions and situational awareness will see you through pretty much everything the island can throw at you.

All right, disclaimer done lets continue.

8E8 is the exception to the rule that says habituated monkeys ignore humans. She is the adult female in Group F that researchers actively avoid. If someone is looking to test a cognition box experiment and they see 8E8 nearby, they quietly find an excuse to search another part of the group for test subjects. If someone is focal following a member of a closely associated group and their focal individual walk close by to 8E8 the researcher decides that they are in fact following their monkey too closely and that they should perhaps give them some more space. I however do not have such a luxury. Instead I stand like a big tall idiot in the middle of the group and hoping that some females get into a fight.

On just such a day three or four weeks ago I got my wish. A female did get into a fight. But it was with an unexpected victim Dun Dun Dun… It was me. There I was, standing like a lost documentary soundman when all of the sudden I felt a tug at my ankle. How odd I think to my self, and look down. Who should I see but the noseless face of 8E8. (I don’t know if I have mentioned this, but 8E8 is missing part of her nose and has the eyes of a demon. Just some useful side info for you) Anyway, 8E8 was grasping my pants in her tiny steel like grip. When I made eye contact with her she looked briefly into my soul, and then walked away.

I considered this rude and told her so. She ignored my remarks and sat by her sister to be groomed. Thinking our encounter over I returned to my regularly scheduled programming of waiting for a fight to break out. Not twenty minutes later I was standing in a different spot like a big tall idiot, when I heard a scream to my left. I spun quickly to bring my fuzzy microphone to bear on the screaming, but was disappointed to find that it was only an infant screaming and running toward me. Before I could sigh and turn back to the group I had been watching, I felt an impact just above my knee and then a second, harder impact, just below my right ribs. I turned to see 8E8 beating a hasty retreat. I looked down to see a muddy hand print on my bright blue field shirt. She had marked me. The game was afoot.

Since then I keep an eye on 8E8. As I move around the group I make sure I know where I last saw her. I don’t avoid her. That would just be showing her that I’m afraid. Which I am. But she can’t know that.

But after today the jig may be up. Once again I was caught between 8E8 and a distressed infant. Though this time, not her own. The infant screamed, I turned, and she struck. Plowing both iron hard palms into my left knee. I let out the yell you can here above and jumped back surging with adrenaline. I’d like to say that I didn’t give her the satisfaction of seeing me cry. And I can say that, because I didn’t cry. But nonetheless the scoreboard reads:

8E8: 2 Vs Will: 0



Sounds You Never Expect to Record

When You Know, You Know



So people expressed an interest in the process of learning monkey faces. So I thought I would give you guys a crash course in IDing Rhesus Macaques.

The first place to start is with an understanding of the task. The goal of the exercise of monkey IDing is not simply to create an internal list of all individuals and their most obvious characteristics. Though it is certainly an excellent place to start. This is one of those rare cases where rational thought is in fact your adversary. It takes too long to go through the process of recognizing a trait, thinking of all individuals that have that trait, and then thinking of other characteristics, which could confirm or reject each of the individuals on your mental list. Instead you need to train your gut.

Training yourself to trust your instincts is not an easy thing to do. Ironically it feels unintuitive. During an ID test it is far more comfortable to try to run your mental check list and arrive at an answer, than it is too blurt the first thing that comes into your head. This is a pretty typical example of what can occur during an ID test:

Tester: “Who is that Monkey?”

Will’s Mind: Oh that monkey is 0A4! But wait; did 0A4 have that huge notch in her left ear? Doesn’t that look more like the ear notch of 8J8? Maybe that monkey is 8J8.

Will’s Mouth: It’s 8J8.

Tester: No, it’s 0A4.

Will’s Mind: Dammit!!!!!

It can seem paradoxical that a skill such as “Instantaneous Monkey Face Knowing” is necessary in a field of science. Especially since science is based on a framework of rational thought and the logical dissemination of information. At first it appears wrong that with a backdrop of rational thinking, that instincts should play such a starring role. But in fact gut reactions and a trust of rapid-fire human intuition plays a role all throughout the sciences. Consider chemists who can tell you the class of organic compound from smelling an aerosol, or a physicist who can tell you the elemental make up of a gas solely from the visible light spectrum it provides when charged, or a botanist who can glance at a wall of greenery and tell you the individual species contained within. At first glance each of these may look a carefully referenced determination, but in reality it is the result of hundreds of hours of study and practice of a given task. Until the focal task becomes second nature, it becomes instinctual.

That is the goal of monkey IDing. To be able to quickly glance at a group of monkeys and see each of them as distinct individuals whose names and relationships you simply know. That is the key to rapid and accurate data collection. And every other kind is worthless.

But since most of you are beginners, and cannot yet see the monkey faces for the monkey features we shall start with an exercise that I gave to my brother Stephen’s elementary school class. No disrespect meant. Below are mug shots of three of my females. We, and by that I mean I, am going to point out some of the characteristics that you could use to tell them apart and begin your IDing adventure. Feel free to pick out your own characteristics as well.


* Female rhesus macaque’s faces turn red in color when they reach the peak of fertility during their estrous cycle. As a result redness of face is a poor identifying characteristic as it is constantly changing.

I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. Now imagine there are 74 more females whose faces you need to know. Could get tricky if you remembered them via a laundry list of memorized facial features.













When You Know, You Know